The single most important thing to read when you buy packaged food... the ingredient statement.

Packaged food is a trillion (with a T) dollar industry. The manufacturer of that pretty little package wants you to purchase it. So it's going to look good. The manufacturer is going to highlight all of it's attributes. They will tell you it's benefits and maybe even the stuff it left out. They might even vie for your kids attention by showcasing their favorite characters, songs, or TV shows. But how do you know what that product is really made of?  

Cheetos are made from cheese, right?  Well, that was the assumption from the majority of middle-schoolers that I polled. The rest didn't know, and no-one guessed correctly.  I took a couple dozen processed food packages into a middle-school classroom.  Each kid received a unique package.  I asked the kids to form groups based on the primary ingredient in the package. The primary ingredient, or what the food is primarily made from, is listed first in the ingredient statement.  The ingredient statement reads in order of most to least, so as you read through it, the percentage of that ingredient within the overall product gets smaller and smaller.  

Once the kids located the main ingredient in their packaged food, they formed groups.  Many of them were surprised by their company. Here's a quick look at the group formed by processed food made with corn as the first ingredient:

  • Cheetos Puffs
  • Vinegar
  • Sun Chips
  • Sprite
  • Pancake Syrup
  • Corn Chips
  • Taco Shells

A couple of students had a hard time finding their group. One of the students had a package of Simply Balanced Strawberry Flavored Fruit Strips. After glancing at the package (and not the ingredient statement), he asked why there wasn't a group of foods made primarily with strawberries. From looking at the package, he assumed that Strawberry Flavored Fruit Strips were made primarily with strawberries.  Seems like a good assumption, right?  After all, there is a large strawberry pictured on the front of the package. Well....after turning the package over, and reading the ingredient statement, this student learned that the primary ingredient in Strawberry Flavored Fruit Strips is actually....APPLES! Yep, ingredient #1 is apple puree concentrate, #2 is apple juice concentrate. Only after you get past the contains 2% or less of: natural flavor, do you find Strawberry Juice Concentrate. Surprised that those Strawberry Flavored Fruit Strips are more than 98% apples? The other confused student had a package of Naked brand Mango smoothie. With a picture of a Mango on the front of the bottle she assumed it was made from magnoes. Upon turning the package over and reading the ingredient label, this student was a bit surprised to find apple juice as the primary ingredient!

What other surprises can you find by reading the ingredient label? What do sugar, dextrose, fructose, invert sugar, and corn syrup have in common? They're all forms of added sugar, and they're commonly found in many processed packaged snacks. The ones that I just listed? I was just reading off the ingredient label on the back of a Strawberry flavored NutriGrain Bar. The crust alone has a total of 27 ingredients! And there is another set of ingredients listed for the filling.

Here's what I found on the front side of the NutriGrain package: "Made with whole grains and the delight of a delicious filling made with strawberry to help you move at the speed of the morning." Sounds good, huh? When you flip the package back over to read the ingredient statement for the filling, would you expect strawberry to be at the top of the list? Or would you be surprised that the "delicious filling made with strawberry" has a mere 14 ingredients (just the filling), and strawberry puree concentrate is #3. The rest are very un-strawberry like. I'll leave NutriGrain alone now.

So what does all of this mean? If you want to know what you and your children are eating, zip on past the marketing lingo and the pretty packaging, and find the ingredient statement. I think it's good for our kids to know what their food is made from...whether it be corn or wheat or oats or fruit or a list of things that they can't even pronounce. If you find an ingredient (or several) you don't know, look them up! The more our kids learn, the more educated they'll become, and the more tools they will have to make the best choices for themselves.  

If you're shocked by ALL of those ingredients in one little package, create your own snack with some simple ingredients. This morning I made a trail mix with a group of students, with food that has minimal ingredients. Instead of reaching for a packaged after school snack, try mixing several of these options together for your own mix:

  • Dried fruit: Regular or golden raisins, dried cranberries, banana chips (unsweetened), dried cherries or blueberries, unsweetened coconut flakes
  • Semi-Sweet chocolate chips
  • Whole wheat pretzel nuggets
  • Freshly popped popcorn (put some kernels in a folded-over paper bag in the microwave)
  • Rice, corn, or wheat Chex cereal
  • Peanuts, pecans, almonds, pistachios (if you don't have any nut allergy issues)
  • Plain Cheerios